VATICAN CITY — “Log on, but bring your brain, your Bible and your Christian values with you” could summarize one of the Synod of Bishops’ messages to Catholics young and old.
Many people, and not only young people, are “immersed” in the digital culture “in an ordinary and continuous manner,” said the final document of the synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment.
Christians need to know the dangers of the medium — from increasing isolation to cyberbullying and exploitation, the synod said Oct. 27, but they also must be part of the billions of conversations that take place there.
The synod document was peppered with references to social media and the digital sphere but had two specific sections devoted to the topic: one on the pervasive nature of digital media in modern life and the other on evangelization and the digital sphere.
“Living in a widely digitalized culture,” it said, “has very profound impacts on the notion of time and space, on the perception of oneself, of others in the world, on the way of communicating, learning and informing oneself.”
Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said Catholics and the church itself have work to do. Social media can “hyper-intensify” the idea that fame, achievement, wealth and power are the culture’s most important values, which is one reason why entertainers and sports figures have so many social media followers.
“We are at a moment when the Gospel’s potential to ‘disrupt’ that culture has never been so strong,” Bishop Tighe said. “The Gospel message wants to say fundamentally that we don’t have to be in the business of performing, of earning, of proving ourselves all the time. God’s love is unconditional, even when we mess up and make mistakes.”
“The digital environment is not so tolerant of such things,” he said, which should give Christians extra incentive to reflect God’s love and mercy online.
Christina Antus, a writer and mother from Colorado, wrote a piece for the Busted Halo website in September, which included advice about putting down one’s phone or tablet.
“I think anyone who has a presence online is impacted both positively and negatively by this, and I think it is a big part of why people should switch off” regularly and limit their time online, she told Catholic News Service.
“Life offline offers a much different experience,” she said. “Switching off allows us to take a break from the digital noise and really put our focus where it’s most important: on our life and the lives of those around us.”
However, when online, she recommended: “being responsible with your time and usage”; following pages and people “you enjoy and who bring substance to your life”; and “if you see, hear or read something that speaks to you, hit the share button. That’s a fast, effective and easy way to share the Gospel.”
The synod document also raised questions about the digital world’s focus on images and the implications that has for a faith “based on listening to the Word of God and on reading Scripture.”
Natasa Govekar, director of the theological-pastoral section of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, which coordinates Pope Francis’ Instagram page, offered a different point of view.
“Faith comes from listening to the Word, but we must not forget that it is an incarnate Word,” that is, God become flesh in Jesus and has “an image, a face,” she said. “That’s why from the first centuries this Word that was listened to and celebrated in the liturgy also was painted on icons and church walls.”
Early Christian art was important not only because many people could not read, but because the use of images “corresponds to the logic of the Incarnation,” she said. And the same could be said of the emphasis on images online.
“The Word of God always reveals himself through the concreteness of an image: the beauty of nature and art and especially through the light on people’s faces, faces transfigured by the Word they have welcomed in their hearts,” Govekar said.
The challenge for Christians today, she said, is to use digital media “to prolong this audiovisual experience of the encounter with the Word that became a face.”
Bishop Tighe’s office focuses on the cultural implications of the digital world, the way it impacts education and the influence it has on forming people’s identity — all of which are referred to in the synod document.
When social media first started taking off, he told CNS, some people felt that for the church “it was an arena best avoided because the reality is that it can be quite nasty” and polarizing.
But, he said, “if people with good values and good aspirations are not present in that arena, we’re abandoning one of the most important forums we have.”
The synod document also recognized how important the internet and social media are for connecting people and informing them.
Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young adult ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was in Rome for the synod and is very familiar with the online activity of young U.S. Catholics.
“What young people seek on social media often depends on their level of engagement with the church,” he told CNS. “For instance, those who are active in the faith may be seeking information on the latest news about the church or wisdom from great Catholic speakers and inspirational figures, whereas those who are less connected may be searching for answers to the basic questions about God, the intersection of science and faith, and how to live a good and moral life.”
Age makes a difference, too, Jarzembowski said. As they graduate, “face serious relationship challenges, enter the workforce, and engage in the social or political landscape,” young adults look for ways to connect their faith with their daily lives.
Young adults, he said, want a “serious interactive engagement on social media, but also desire a lived, in-person community to connect with, find peers and mentors, and put their faith into action with the help of those with similar interests or experiences.”
The synod document called for Catholics not just to use digital media to proclaim the Christian message, but “to imbue its cultures and its dynamics with the Gospel.”
The extraordinary possibility of the digital environment fostering an “authentic culture of encounter,” Bishop Tighe said, requires “being attentive to the kind of language we use. It requires paying attention to not relaying information that is negative, untrue or that we have not verified for ourselves.”
That, he said, “requires people to slow down a little bit, think a bit more and reflect on what they are doing” online.